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Theatre in Review: The Hello Girls (Prospect Theater Company/59E59)

Arlo Hill, Ellie Fishman. Photo: Richard Termine.

The musical theatre makers Peter Mills and Cara Reichel have the most eclectic tastes, having dealt with subject matter ranging from F. Scott Fitzgerald to the sixteenth-century composer Carlo Gesualdo to life on the other side of what was once known as the Iron Curtain. This time out, they've unearthed a fascinating, stirring slice of early-twentieth-century women's history, fashioning a show that fully does justice to it. If you have a daughter, this is must viewing, but don't let them have all the fun.

The title characters of The Hello Girls are young women who were recruited to be telephone operators for the US Army in France during World War One. If the issue of women in the military remains delicate today, it was absolutely radioactive then: But as the book, by Mills and Reichel, makes clear, by 1918 it was obvious that women were better at the task of operating a switchboard even under the most pressured situations -- they could handle up to three hundred calls an hour, a record no man could match. The authors assemble a plucky quintet of heroines -- each of them fluent in French, telephone work, or both -- and dispatch them off to Paris, where high adventure awaits.

The ladies are Grace Banker, who, having risen to a supervisor's position at Bell Telephone in New York, is firmly pressed up against the glass ceiling; Suzanne Prevot, her fiery friend and colleague, who is ready for some excitement in life; Helen Hill, just off the Idaho farm and unversed in anything but potatoes; Bertha Hunt, who doesn't see the point in waiting at home for her husband, who is overseas, fighting; and Louise LeBreton, a Frenchwoman and recent émigré who is itching to get back home and fight the Germans. All are eager to serve their country, but this is 1918, and such a desire instantly makes them suspect. (Even after induction, soldiers are sent to spy on them, trying to trap them into passing secrets.) In an early number, set to a sardonic ragtime beat, they bemoan the endless vetting process, singing, "They've searched for any impurity/Posing a security threat/Digging deep to determine/Who's a bit too German/And we aren't in the Army yet."

Despite the baldly stated reservations of Lieutenant Joseph Riser, their reluctant commanding officer -- not to mention their early and virulent resistance to Army discipline -- the "hello girls," as they come to be known, execute their orders with distinction, first in Paris and later at Chaumont, where General Pershing is headquartered. But, having survived artillery shelling in Paris, all five want to do more; after considerable maneuvering, they get themselves transferred to the front line, where, despite hardship and danger, they persist until the armistice bells ring.

It's an extraordinary true story, a slice of history ripe for reexamination -- historian Elizabeth Cobbs published a book about the hello girls last year -- and, in these fraught and divided times, the courage and patriotism of these young women are a positive balm for the soul. As the show notes, all of them were willing to risk their lives for a country that wouldn't allow them the privilege of voting. Not that there's anything sanctimonious or leadenly uplifting about The Hello Girls. These young women are edgy with excitement, hell-bent on making a difference, even if it includes risking life and limb; this makes them ideal musical theatre heroines.

Mills and Reichel tell their story with considerable verve, expanding the hello girls' involvement in the war by degrees, until they are as deep in the trenches as any soldier. And without throwing any spurious, pro forma musical comedy romances into the mix, the authors depict the girls' growing friendships with their male colleagues and each other; especially moving is Grace's bond with Riser, who treats his underlings with a mixture of fury and concern that melts into an indissoluble bond. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Mills and Reichel have a keen sense of occasion, planting songs in just the right places and using them to strike exactly the right emotional notes.

Among the songs -- music and lyrics by Mills -- the standouts include the rousing opener, "Answer the Call," in which we are asked to "Imagine America's war machine waking/And making its global debut." "Connected" wittily introduces Grace and her humdrum life: "Six o'clock, an alarm rings in a bedroom in Passaic/I'm awake and I'm out the door by seven on most days/Mother hoped that my life might be a tad more formulaic/She believes that this career of mine's a 'phase'." "See You on the Other Side" is filled with the wonder and fear of the girls as they sail for Europe. The title song is an old-fashioned musical comedy rouser in which the girls get to know the doughboys who will be their constant companions. "So Good So Far" is a lovely trio in which Helen, Bertha, and Grace, writing to loved ones, take measure of how much their lives have changed. Mills possesses remarkable melodic invention, blending contemporary, period, and musical theatre styles to create music with its own distinctive voice. He also writes lyrics that are clever and pointed without being showy, thanks to his knack for mordant internal rhymes. This is a score that I'm eager to hear again.

Under Reichel's direction, all five leading ladies sparkle. (The cast does double duty, serving as musicians, roaming the set with instruments in hand.) Ellie Fishman lends real dignity and poise to Grace, who, all too often, finds herself caught between Riser's demands and the hello girls' rebellious instincts, but when the time comes for her to let loose, unloading her fury on Riser in a number titled "Twenty," she doesn't hold back. She also makes the most of a scene in which, in the heat of battle, she is made, under duress, to leave a burning telephone station. Chanel Karimkhani captures the fear and fatalism in Helen, who arrives without enough money to purchase her uniform, but who, over time, grows visibly. As Bertha, Lili Thomas brings good sense and a can-do attitude to each of her scenes. Skyler Volpe gives a sly spin to Suzanne's sardonic observations about army life. Cathryn Wake peps things up every time she appears as the naturally flirtatious and unruly Louise. Among the men, Arlo Hill makes a most sympathetic antagonist as Riser, who, against his better judgment, comes to admire his female charges.

The production features an unusual and inventive design by Lianne Arnold, in which the back wall of the set consists of a series of switchboards arranged in an arc, which serve as a surface for her projections of war scenes, Paris streets, and various bits of telephone switching gear. The boards are also filled with color-changing LEDs, which add to Isabella Byrd's ever-shifting lighting design. Whitney Locher's costumes combine contemporary outfits with period gear; I preferred the latter. Kevin Heard's sound design could probably be dialed down a couple of notches, as 59E59's Theater A isn't that big.

There are a few weaknesses here and there. The first act is probably about ten minutes too long. At first, I was confused about Grace and Suzanne's relationship, wondering if they were lovers. (They aren't.) But this is an exhilarating entertainment that cunningly bookends its story with numbers that pointedly ask the audience: What can you do to make history? It also ends with an infuriating/inspiring postscript, recounting how, after the war, the hello girls had to fight for official recognition. As they learned, if you want the world to change, you'd better get busy. -- David Barbour

(6 December 2018)

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